Monday, September 28, 2009

Dirty New Orleans: Anti-citizen government is worse than Katrina

An open letter to the citizens of New Orleans:

Everyone knows about Stockholm Syndrome. It's a psychological term that describes the behavior of kidnap victims who, over time, become sympathetic to their captors. In some cases, they even see their rescuers as the bad guys.

In almost 30 years as a newspaperman, I've seen the Stockholm Syndrome play out in unexpected places, including the halls of government. Well-meaning people who likely began their public lives as honest, devoted public servants become compliant, submissive hostages to the institutions that envelop, hide and nurture them. In their minds, the noble public slowly transmogrifies into ... the unwashed masses. "These pitchfork-wielding peasants want to harm our comfortable systems and codes," they cry, "and we cannot let that happen!"

Suddenly, the ordinary citizen -- for whom these institutions supposedly exist -- is the enemy. Every ordinary action, such as seeking a day in court, requesting guidance on zoning, or just asking for a simple public document, becomes a terroristic threat to the very people who once swore to serve ordinary citizens. God forbid that we might be forced to depend on our city leaders to actually save our lives in the event of a natural disaster.

New Orleans -- in both its pre- and post-Katrina incarnations -- might just be America's best example of corrupt, anti-citizen government. The silos have been hardened to withstand a nuclear blast of public opinion (although, as you'll learn later in this essay, apparently cannot protect simple file cabinets). Many of the dysfunctional, corrupt, lazy, petulant, unorganized, non-responsive, despotic, Third World behaviors of New Orleans public servants are detailed at this site, so I won't repeat the lengthy laundry list of misdeeds and insults New Orleans government heaps upon its people every single day.

But I will tell you an uncomplicated story about my most recent experience with New Orleans city government, especially its law enforcement agencies. Incredibly, what should have been one of the simplest and most non-threatening open-records requests ever has revealed just how entrenched New Orleans "public" servants have become against you. Maybe against the world.

I am writing a book profiling 10 survivors of mass-murder in the USA, to be published in late 2010. Each story will recap crimes and the moment when the survivor and killer crossed paths, but they will also explore how each survivor has coped with the trauma and its ripple effects over the years. One of my subjects is a retired New Orleans firefighter named Tim Ursin, who was wounded in 1973 by mass-murderer Mark Essex at New Orleans’ Howard Johnson Hotel.

Essex was a racist African-American who targeted white victims (and skipped over blacks) during a famous day-long siege at the downtown hotel in January 1973. He slaughtered 9 white people (mostly cops) and wounded 13 more innocents. He shot Tim Ursin, who was only trying to save people from the burning hotel. He was himself finally killed with the help of a Marine helicopter in the area because the New Orleans police were outgunned and unprepared for such a crime.

My research on Tim Ursin’s heroic experience began in January 2009 with a letter to the New Orleans Police Department seeking access to general reports and photographs from the crime. I followed with a request to the New Orleans Coroners Office with a similar request for Essex’s autopsy report.

Nine months after I first requested simple documents related to one of NOLA's most historic and noteworthy events, I have received nothing. Zip. In those nine months, despite repeated letters, phone messages and emails, I have literally received ONE call back (last March) from a low-ranking media officer who assured me that she was passing my request to the NOPD Records Department and that I'd be hearing from them soon. Never happened.

Today, I called the New Orleans Coroner's Office, from whom I've been seeking similar records in multiple snail-mailings. Just before he hung up on me, badge-heavy and dyspeptic Chief Investigator John Gagliano -- to whom I had addressed three separate letters -- claimed he never got them and that all Essex records were destroyed by Katrina anyway. End of story. Click.

Two letters to New Orleans City Attorney Penya Moses-Fields have also gone unanswered ... even though Louisiana law requires agencies to respond to open-records requests within three days. Clearly, the law enforcement agencies of New Orleans remain unfazed by the law. It just gets in the way.

Now, I must why a government agency would hide documents that actually might make them look good? Could it be that they simply don't know how to be open? That ALL information imbues them with a power they cannot risk sharing with people (you) who simply can't handle the truth? has detailed frighteningly numerous government misdeeds in New orleans, many of them quite serious to the public health and safety of New Orleanians. But in my case, we're not talking about records that will blow the lid off city-government or police careers. It isn't an expose of Watergate-like proportion. We're talking about simple official documentation of a historic case that's been closed for almost 40 years. If ineptitude has cost New Orleans all of its pre-2005 historic documents, then you really are a Third World community. But I suspect it's just old-fashioned "we ain't gonna tell ya 'cuz we don't wanna." The barbarians are at the gate!

Your city's leadership is famously (and historically) inept and corrupt. Fixing that rests entirely in your hands. It's not just a change of mayors that's required, but a change in cultures ... and frankly that seems less likely than another mega-billion-dollar disaster in your city.

If New Orleans police agencies are incapable of protecting pieces of paper, how in the world could they be expected to protect people? If they feel no special obligation to the public's trust, how can they expect the public to trust them?

Bottom line, you shouldn't trust the government to always do what's right. You can't even trust them to do what's legal. Right now, New Orleans has a government apart from the people ... of itself, by itself, for itself.

The biggest mess you have wasn't created by Hurricane Katrina, but might have been exposed by the storm. If these easiest public service is made difficult, the core of your government is rotten. You're not the true enemy, but they will sacrifice you to protect their institutions. And it appears you're quite comfortable with that. Like sheep to the slaughter.

All my best,
Ron Franscell

Friday, September 25, 2009

Last Meal: Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger ...

Your last breath is only a few hours away. The governor isn't going to call. People are gathering outside to cheer your death. The Death Row chaplain has run out of prayers. The clock is ticking like a time bomb.

You have one final decision before your life is over: what will you eat for your last meal? Porterhouse steak? Beef Wellington? French nouvelle?

In Texas, where we keep painfully detailed Death House records, the most common answer is surprising: cheeseburgers and fries. Why? After 20 years in stir, where cheeseburgers aren't commonly served in the prison chow line, they are the most evocative comfort food in a Dead Man Walking's memory of the outside world. Or maybe they just taste good.

Double and triple cheeseburgers were on the Last Menu for killers. Most were prepared in the prison kitchens, but insiders reveal that they'll occasionally make a quick run to the Golden Arches to satisfy a last request.

But burgers aren't the only surprising final entree for the condemned. Hatchet-killer David Long had four BLTs. Baby-killing mass-murderer John Wheat had liver and onions -- and whole milk. Family killer Leonard Rojas had a whole fried chicken (extra crispy). Shootist John Baltazar asked for Cool Whip and cherries. James Powell wanted one pot of coffee. Random killer Jonathan Nobles requested communion for his last meal. And robber-killer Clifton Russell wasn't picky -- he asked for "whatever is on the menu."

Just like the outside world, cheeseburgers are declasse for the celebrities of Death Row. Serial killer Ricky Lee Green had five scrambled eggs, four sausage patties, eight slices of toast, six strips of bacon and four pints of milk. Born-again pick-axe killer Karla Faye Tucker chose a banana, a peach and a garden salad with ranch dressing. Serial killer Kenneth McDuff gorged himself on two T-bone steaks, five fried eggs, French fries, coconut pie and Coke. "Candyman" Ronald O'Bryan -- who poisoned his own son and ruined Halloween for many children -- ate a T-bone with corn and peas, saltines, Boston cream pie and sweet tea. Railroad Killer Angel Maturino Resendiz declined any last meal.

Last Meals are purely symbolic of society's mercy. They are generally served so close to execution that they have no nutritional value to the condemned. In most cases, they don't even have time to digest completely. They are simply a gesture to provide one last comfort or pleasure to a man or woman who'll be dead within a few hours.

So ... what would you order for your Last Meal?

(Want to know more? Pick up the latest edition of "Texas Death Row," Edited by Bill Crawford)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

To all the Under-30 Crybabies

I didn't write this ... I just wish I had.

When I was a kid, adults used to bore me to tears with their tedious diatribes about how hard things were when they were growing up; what with walking 25 miles to school every morning ... uphill BOTH ways …yadda, yadda, yadda.

And I remember promising myself that when I grew up, there was no way in hell I was going to lay a bunch of crap like that on kids about how hard I had it and how easy they've got it!

But now that I'm over the ripe old age of thirty, I can't help but look around and notice the youth of today. You've got it so easy! I mean, compared to my childhood, you live in a damn Utopia! And I hate to say it but you kids today you don't know how good you've got it!

1) When I was a kid we didn't have The Internet.
If we wanted to know something, we had to go to the damn library and look it up ourselves, in the card catalog!

2) There was no email!!
We had to actually write somebody a letter ... with a pen! Then you had to walk all the way across the street and put it in the mailbox and it would take like a week to get there!

3) There were no MP3's or Napsters!
You wanted to steal music, you had to hitchhike to the damn record store and shoplift it yourself! Or you had to wait around all day to tape it off the radio and the DJ would usually talk over the beginning and screw it all up!

4) We didn't have fancy crap like Call Waiting!
If you were on the phone and somebody else called they got a busy signal, that's it!

5) And we didn't have fancy caller ID.
When the phone rang, you had no idea who it was! It could be your school, your mom, your boss, your bookie, your drug dealer, a collections agent, you just didn't know!!! You had to pick it up and take your chances mister!

6) We didn't have any fancy video games with high-resolution 3­D graphics!
We had the Atari! With games like “Space Invaders” and “Asteroids” and the graphics were horrible! Your guy was a little square! You actually had to use your imagination! And there were no multiple levels or screens, it was just one screen forever! And you could never win. The game just kept getting harder and harder and faster and faster until you died! Just like LIFE!

7) When you went to the movie theater there no such thing as stadium seating!
All the seats were the same height! If a tall guy or some old broad with big hair or a hat sat in front of you and you couldn't see, you were just screwed!

8) Sure, we had cable television, but back then that was only like 15 channels and there was no onscreen menu!
You had to use a little book called a TV Guide to find out what was on!

And there was no Cartoon Network either! You could only get cartoons on Saturday morning. Do you hear what I'm saying!?! We had to wait ALL WEEK for cartoons!

9) And we didn't have microwaves…
If we wanted to heat something up, we had to use the stove or go build a fire...imagine that! If we wanted popcorn, we had to use that stupid Jiffy Pop thing or a pan with HOT oil and real popcorn kernels and shake it all over the stove forever like an idiot.

10) When we were on the phone with our friends and our parents walked-in … we were stuck to the wall with a cord, a 7-foot cord that ran to the phone - not to the phone base, the actual phone. We barely had enough length to sit on the floor and still be able to twirl the phone cord in our fingers. If you suddenly had to go to the bathroom - guess what we had to do.....hang up and talk to them later.

That's exactly what I'm talking about! You kids today have got it too easy. You're spoiled. You guys wouldn't have lasted five minutes back in 1980!

“The Over 30 Crowd”

Friday, September 18, 2009

A peek inside my writing life ...

Read novelist Craig Lancaster's Q&A with me about books and literature at his website, A Mind Adrift in the West.

Here's a taste:

"[Validation] is when a reader comes up to me or writes letter and tells me how one of my books touched her in a memorable way. For me, this has always been an intimate contract between me and readers. Agents, editors, booksellers, publicists, reviewers, media are all necessary in delivering the book to a reader’s hands, but when the reader completes the circle and tells me something marvelous about one of my stories, that’s when I know I told a good story."

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Sticks and Stones: Let's stop being offended, fergawdsakes

America is all a'Twitter (literally) over recent outbursts by singer Kanye West, tennis player Serena Williams and U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson. Throw in the righteous indignation over town-hall protesters by suddenly decorum-obsessed followers of Cindy Sheehan and Al Sharpton and ... well, you've got a massive whine-and-cheese party.

C'mon folks. Was the normally prosaic path of your life significantly (or even slightly) altered by any of these knuckleheaded squawks? Sure, depending on your view, maybe you were entertained or enraged briefly, but really ... did any of them truly matter?

Long ago, media critic Jeff Jarvis spoke words that should resonate with us far more than "hope and change." He said:

"The cardinal sin today is to offend (and) the clearest badge of victimhood is to be offended."

Kanye West did nothing more than extend his brand. He's the quintessential gangsta wannabe who can't control his self-centered urge to blurt out inappropriate blather at exactly the wrong moment. It comes to him more naturally than foreign accents come to Meryl Streep. After making unscripted racist comments about President Bush during a fund-raising commercial, and other awards-show interruptions, should we really be surprised by Kanye West? His comments might have hurt Taylor Swift's feelings, but how did they hurt anyone else but Kanye West?

And, oh boy, let's get our panties wadded over a potty-mouthed tennis player! Ever since John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors -- now both cultural icons -- picked up a racket, it's been the template for professional tennis players. But suddenly we're shocked -- shocked, I say -- that Serena Williams has a ghetto mouth.

Of course, Joe Wilson's is worst of all. He said, "You lie!" during President Obama's speech to Congress (and was correct) but now the House of representatives stops its work on, oh, fixing the economy, health care, terror and everything else to admonish the poor guy who has already apologized to the president. And nobody admonished Democrats for booing President Bush in his 2005 State of the Union speech. If delays in health care reform were so fatal, how many people died while Speaker Nancy Pelosi expressed her outrage that a Republican would shout at a president who was, indeed, lying?

Let's get past our righteous indignation about people mouthing off. Stick and stones and all that. We are not hurt, nor even significantly diminished, by these outbursts. What should be minor blips on the media radar are being played above the fold in papers and looped endlessly on TV and radio. Talk radio is nothing but a series of these inconsequential outbursts (OK, conservatives will say it's patriotism and liberals will say it's Nazi-racist-anarchist-greedy maundering, but to most of us it's simply inconsequential.)

Maybe we should take a page from Facebook's notebook. Wouldn't it be convenient if, when one of these outbursts erupts, instead of getting all panty-wadded, we could just "un-friend" the offender and never have to listen to him/her again? Can you imagine how Kanye's record sales would fall if the USA suddenly un-friended him in one fell swoop? Or how Serena's pay-days would be suddenly thinner if nobody was watching?

If we continue to just float on the erratic stream of pop-culture like idiot leaves, we will simply continue to be offended, which makes us all victims. Screw that (sorry, folks, but that's as offensive as I can muster.)

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Commie, intolerant conspiracy-nut Van Jones: 'What did I do?'

Van Jones, the green jobs "czar" in the Obama Administration, has resigned. He blames right-wing talk radio and health-care reform protesters.

Gee, really?

Yeah, it couldn't possibly be that Jones harbored a belief that the Bush Administration secretly ordered or allowed the 9/11 attacks to happen. Jones admitted last week that he signed a 2004 petition
calling for an investigation into "evidence that suggests high-level government officials may have deliberately allowed the September 11th attacks to occur."

And it couldn't possibly be Jones confession that he labels himself a communist.

And it couldn't possibly be Jones' admitted membership in radical, anti-establishment groups like Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement, or STORM, which based itself on the teachings of Marx and Lenin.

Nor could it possibly be that he regards all Republicans (in his own words) as "assholes." (I mean, do we really have a man who hates half of America whispering to our President?)

No, it must be talk radio's fault. What a joke. Being someone who really wants "green jobs" to become an important trend in America, I resent that President Obama has subjected it to the extreme views of this one political pervert. Like too many people today, Van Jones proves to be extremely ordinary: he just can't take responsibility for his own behavior.

Good riddance. Let's hope he's replaced by someone with a realistic, honest, positive view of America's potential.

Friday, September 04, 2009

CHARLES COHEN (1937-2009)
A second life well lived

My friend Charles Cohen, 72, has died. He passed at 1:30 a.m. today and he will be buried on Sunday, September 6, in Philadelphia, not far from his parents and gradnmother, who were killed by mass murderer Howard Unruh exactly 60 years before ... September 6, 1949. The timing feels less like coincidence, more like design.

On a day I expected to sit with him and hear stories about his extraordinary life, I will instead attend his funeral.

Over the past several months, I developed great affection for Charles, who found himself suddenly alone in the world at 12 years old. Every time some deranged gunman would kill a large number of people, my phone would ring and we'd talk for a long time about what had happened. Of course, these killings aroused dark memories in Charles, but he always wanted to talk about the survivors and the families of the dead because he had a direct, empathetic connection to them. They were his family, too.

I will miss my friend, but tonight, he knows what we don't.